Nathaniel Hackmann, Sierra Boggess, Rodney Earl Clarke, Jamie Parker, Louise Dearman, Sandra Marvin, Nadim Naaman
Sinfonia of London Conducted by John Wilson
CHSA 5322(2)

It is one of the best reviewed albums of the year so far and the hype is, for once, entirely justified. Rumour has it that when John Wilson met with American composer John Williams at a concert in which the conductor had re-introduced some lighter American music in its original orchestration, the veteran composer greeted him with “Thank you for bringing our music back to us”.

The present recording is just such an example of Wilson bringing classic American musical theatre ‘back to us’ with the first complete recording of the full score of the show in its original orchestration, including incidental music and songs that, in some productions, are cut. The argument made is one of the sheer musical cohesion of the piece: yes, it is a book musical, but it still has a distinct and innovative musical through-line that is not felt in all productions. The innovations are at the fore of the recording, not least the idyllic act 1 opening (on stage featuring only one character visible, while the first sung line is offstage) with the orchestration in all its glory, conjuring the scene in vivid sounds. The central cowboy figure, Curly, is here played by Nathaniel Hackman, whose wonderfully rich baritone is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the recording. He is superbly complemented by Sierra Boggess’ Lawrie, with a sweet soprano voice that captures the character’s innocence as well as her strength. The secondary romance of Will and Ado Annie is voiced by Jamie Parker and Louise Dearman. Dearman is renowned already as an accomplished performer of musical theatre and cabaret and her communicative ability with Hammerstein’s lyrics is second to none. Parker is better known as an actor in straight plays, but his singing of the role here is truly a revelation — a triple threat indeed, based on his Proms performances. The more comic roles of Aunt Eller (though her wisdom underlies her wit) and Ali Hakim are ably sung by Sandra Marvin and Nadim Naaman, who bring huge character to these relatively minor figures, resulting in fully rounded characters, evident even without seeing the piece staged. In the role of Jud Fry, Rodney Earle Clarke is the singer who most audibly fights with the orchestral forces. However in Lonely Room, it is very clear just how challenging the forces of Robert Russell Bennet’s orchestrations really are, unleashing more or less the full orchestra alongside a baritone voice in mid range. Ideally, the recording levels could have been better balanced here to be a bit more sympathetic to the singer.

The chorus also play an important role, as do the orchestral ensemble and both are an utter joy in the famed Farmer and the Cowman as well as the title song. The orchestra alone takes centre stage at several points, thanks to the inclusion of all of the instrumental music, including the intensely dramatic ballet sequence that closes the first act. The overall impression we are given as listeners is just how impressive the show must have been when audiences first saw it in 1943, kick-starting a new form of American musical theatre, unafraid of raising moral questions about historical times of transition. With this recording, Wilson, the cast and ensemble may very well have created the truly definitive recording of Oklahoma! for the ages. DA

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